God made Joe Gibbs' career according to Gibbs. I won’t argue the point, but his coaching career is a prefect example of the value of connections. He outlined his progression in coaching in his book Racing To Win: Establish Your Game Plan For Success (Joe Gibbs with Ken Abraham, Multaomah Publishers, Sisters Oregon, 2002.)
Joe Gibbs Coaching Lineage
Gibbs football pedigree includes the games best minds. Don Coryell’s recurring role was the most influential. Coryell recruited Gibbs out of Cerritos Junior College to San Diego State with an offer of a half-scholarship. “He didn’t have to offer it twice” said Gibbs who jumped at the chance. Gibbs played guard, tight end and linebacker for the Aztecs. When he graduated, Gibbs remained with San Diego State as an unpaid coach, with his major duty being to make the fast food run for the other assistant coaches. John Madden was on Coryell’s staff during that period and Gibbs said “I was privileged to learn from the best.” Coryell eventually found a paid slot for Gibbs as offensive line coach. In 1966, SDSU went 11-0 and won the small college national championship.
Don Breaux, an assistant at Florida State University, noticed Gibbs and persuaded him to sign on as offensive line coach for the Seminoles. There he joined hard-working head coach Bill Peterson. The Seminoles went 15-4-1 during Gibbs’ first two seasons there. From there, Gibbs describes his career as “chasing dreams,” which by this time meant his dream of being a college head coach. Gibbs knew that head coaches were picked from the ranks of offensive or defensive coordinators and he became increasingly frantic to become one.
John McKay invited Gibbs to join his staff at the University of Southern California. The Trojans won fifteen of nineteen games during Gibbs first two years there. Gibbs found McKay to be a brilliant tactician and Gibbs absorbed much from McKay’s management style.
Don Breaux entered the picture again to persuade Gibbs to join him on Frank Broyles’ staff at the University of Arkansas as offensive line coach. Breaux overcame Gibbs’ initial reluctance to the move with the alluring statement that “a lot of head coaches have come out of Arkansas.” “Head coach? That was all I needed to hear,” said Gibbs.
Frank Broyles was a departure from the other coaches Gibbs worked with. As Gibbs described them, “Don Coryell was passionately intense. He was totally consumed with coaching.” Gibbs considered Coryell football brilliant, “an incredible strategist, constantly devising new plays, trying new alignments – anything that might help us win a game.” Coryell was Gibbs' first coaching role model. From Bill Peterson, Gibbs extracted hard work and the will to win. John McKay had a razor-sharp tongue and used it to motivate through fear.
In contrast, Broyles was a courtly, polished salesman. Gibbs learned from him that coaching was more than Xs and Os. Broyles sold his program to his staff, his players and their parents and they bought it whole. That was just as well. Broyles tapped Gibbs to recruit in Texas, to lure prospects away from the hated Texas Longhorns, Texas A&M Aggies and Baylor Bears. As hard a sell as you can get!
A Change of Direction
By his early thirties, Gibbs came to see himself as stuck as offensive line coach, denied the chance to rise to head coach. Coryell reentered the picture with an offer to join the NFL St. Louis Cardinals’ coaching staff – as offensive line coach. Gibbs turned him down. Coryell tinkered with his staff alignment, moving Jim Hanifan from offensive backfield to offensive line coach, then offering Gibbs, an offensive line coach, the chance to coach the Cardinal’s backfield. It was enough of a change for Gibbs to bite. Gibbs later wrote “by rights (Coryell) shouldn’t have put Jim Hanifan on the line. Jim was a backfield coach. But the wisdom of this move was proven again and again over the years as Hanifan went on to become one of the premier line coaches in the NFL. In fact, when the Washington Redskins won the 1992 Super Bowl, Jim Hanifan was coaching our offensive line.”
Gibbs remained with Coryell in St. Louis from 1973 through 1977 where, with Jim Hart and Terry Metcalf, they gave the NFC East fits. This was during George Allen’s heyday with the Redskins’ Over The Hill gang. The Cardinals won the division title in 1974 and 1975 and Gibbs regards this period with Coryell one of the highlights of his career. The thrill was gone when, in ’77, the Cardinals lost a key game to the Redskins, knocking them out of the playoffs. The next weekend, Gibbs and the Cardinals coaches went to work to find that the locks had been changed. By this time, Gibbs’ network was firmly established. John McKay offered Gibbs the offensive coordinator’s role with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gibbs didn’t know it at the time, but he had signed for one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
Wandering in the Wilderness
The expansion Buccaneers were inept, not surprising for a new NFL franchise, but they achieved new lows. The team went 0-26 in their first twenty-six games. When Gibbs arrived, McKay instructed him to work the quarterbacks. They both concluded that there was no “there” there. McKay then assigned Gibbs to work out a high potential college quarterback from Grambling State, Doug Williams. Gibbs assessed Williams as having an incredible arm and “football smart.” But colored boys did not quarterback NFL teams in the '70s. Colored boys didn’t quarterback anywhere but at black colleges. Tampa Bay broke new ground by selecting Williams with Tampa Bay’s first round pick in the 1978 draft. Amazing that a Deep South team would be the first to break that taboo!
With Williams, the Buccaneers won four of their first eight games and everything was looking up for the long suffering franchise. Then Williams was knocked out for the remainder of the season with a broken jaw. Everything fell apart. “We devised a whole new way of losing games” wrote Gibbs.
After the disastrous season, Coach McKay decided to call the offensive plays, a demotion for Gibbs. His network came through, once again in the form of Don Coryell's offer to join his San Diego Chargers staff – as offensive line coach. Coryell had offered the offensive coordinator job to Ray Perkins. By this time, born again Gibbs decided to “let God,” so he accepted the offer despite personal misgivings. The misgivings were misplaced. Within a few weeks, Perkins was offered the New York Giants head coaching job. Coryell elevated Gibbs to offensive coordinator.
At San Diego, Coryell’s long-ball philosophy reached its pinnacle. The high powered, pass-oriented offense is remembered as “air Coryell.” It made stars of Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow -- and Joe Jackson Gibbs, who went from there to great glory as head coach of the Washington Redskins. (Al Saunders succeededGibbs as the Chargers O-coordinator.) Gibbs brought the Coryell system to the Redskins, but his version featured a heavy dose of power running, delivered by the likes of John Riggins, George Rogers, Gerald Riggs and Ernest Byner.
Career Network At Work
Joe Gibbs was nurtured by football’s best coaches. (The won-loss record of Gibbs’ four college mentors is a phenomenal 445-170-28.) Again and again, his network of contacts came through to position not only his next move, but the best opportunity to absorb the essence of greatness. Networks are the fabric of a career. If there is a career rip or tear, your network can help mend it. In Gibbs’ career, his circle of associates proved to be the source of jobs, of staff, of examples of success and of reputation.
To see a Joe Gibbs offense is to see the strains from which it arose. Gibbs offense featured schemes that befuddled defenses with three or four receiving threats, multiple shifts, six man lines with a single tailback, H-backs (a tight end in the slot or backfield). An attack might come from anywhere. These schemes have at their source Don Coryell with a dash of Bill Peterson (and you have to give a nod to Sid Gillman, that patriarch of NFL offensive thinking). More than Xs and Os, Gibbs inspires uncommon devotion by his team. They are sold on his concepts and program -- the clear hand of Frank Broyles. John Riggins marvels at Gibbs' ability to manage people. More than once, he said that Gibbs "could have probably run General Motors," not to mention a winning N.A.S.C.A.R. team.
Gibbs’ hard work and long hours were extracted from Bill Peterson “who did not have raw talent on his teams, or a flamboyant personality …, but who succeeded nonetheless through sheer hard work.” From John McKay he learned that a certain part of being a good coach is the use of fear to motivate people.
Equally clear is, that to be a great coach, one must seek out and recruit outstanding assistants. Coryell, Breaux, Peterson and Broyles saw something in Gibbs and a number of other assistants who went on to successful NFL careers. Part of their greatness is due to their ability to build a stellar staff as Gibbs is now doing with Gregg Williams, Joe Bugel and recently Al Saunders, the highly regarded Kansas City offensive coordinator – and Don Coryell protégé. Outstanding assistants enabled the Redskins to be effective at half-time adjustments, as Gibbs became known for doing in his 1980s rampage.
This treatise covers Gibbs coaching pedigree from a career networking perspective. No discussion of Gibbs can escape without examining his view that his career was guided by the hand of God. In Racing To Win, Gibbs describes how he allowed The Lord to guide his career, especially during his Tampa Bay exile. With repeated assignments as offensive line coach and apparent failure at Tampa Bay, his head coach dream seemed far away. His faith was tested, but not shaken.
Gibbs eventually came to see his calamitous time with the Buccaneers as necessary training for overcoming adversity. He sees God as placing him there as part of His plan that Gibbs allowed to operate in life. He felt led to accept the O-line coach position with San Diego, then elevated to the coveted offensive coordinator slot that would have escaped him had he followed his own instincts. Far from being a hinderence, Gibbs heavy O-line experience lifted him up as he created the most famous offensive line in pro football, the Redskins’ legendary Hogs. His time with Tampa Bay exposed him to Doug Williams who would later lead the Skins to a Super Bowl win over Denver. Don Breaux and Jim Hanifan joined Gibbs coaching staff on the Redskins, where Breaux will probably remain for as long as Gibbs is there. Gibbs never saw these career turns as luck or coincidence, but as the influence of a Guiding Hand directing his coaching, his leadership and life.
Apart from Gibbs’ perception of Divine intervention, his extraordinary exposure to four of college football’s greatest coaches at the start of his career could well be seen as empirical evidence of a higher power at work. It's good to have God in your network.
Racing To Win: Establishing your Game Plan For Success may be found in your public library – in the Religion section.
Racing To Win